By Adam Lawrence
Turn up at one of the marquee courses of Scotland or Ireland on a nice summer’s day and you can pretty much guarantee that many of the voices you hear will be American. Arrive at one of continental Europe’s big names, though, and things will be very different: Despite more attention being paid to the courses of the Netherlands and France especially, Europe is still way off the beaten track for transatlantic golfers.
Which is a shame. Yes, the best courses of the Continent might be a step below those of the British Isles—there’s nothing to equal Royal Portrush or Royal County Down for sheer dramatic brilliance—but there is magnificent golf to be found all over the Continent. If you can be bothered to look for it.
What there isn’t in continental Europe is a whole lot of high-profile new golf. The crash of 2007–8 hit the economies hard, and only lately has the building of new courses recommenced.
Golf architecture across Europe is generally a few years behind the U.S. and UK in terms of what is and isn’t fashionable. The overwhelming majority of the best courses date from the pre-WWII Golden Age, and were built by the leading British architects of the time. More recently—and especially in Spain and Portugal, which pioneered golf tourism in Europe—quite a few resort and residential courses were built, either by Robert Trent Jones Sr. or one of the many architects influenced by him. It is only very recently that the Doak/Coore/Hanse “minimalist” movement has gathered much traction, as a new generation of young European designers, exemplified by Christian Althaus in Germany, Philip Spogard in Denmark, and Jonathan Davison, a British expat resident in Slovakia, start to exert their influence.
This tour of Europe’s best will be quick and capricious. It won’t cover all the top-ranked courses but those I find the most interesting.
Portugal has been a massive golf-travel destination for many years, but mostly focused on the Algarve, the country’s sunny southern province. The abundant Atlantic coastline around the capital, Lisbon, is also ideal for golf, and features several highly rated venues. West Cliffs, built by Cynthia Dye McGarey (Pete Dye’s niece) on sandy terrain atop sea cliffs above the ocean, has been hailed by many as the country’s best course. It’s wide open, rough around the edges, and traverses some wild terrain. The epic par-five 7th plays from a high tee over some enormous rolls. But a word to the wise: Houses are scheduled to be built at West Cliffs, which won’t do the wild feelany favors. Go now, if you want to see the course at its best.
The Real Club de la Puerta de Hierro in Madrid, the capital of Spain, was founded in 1895 with the course opening in 1914. The original course was designed by Harry Colt in the same year he created Chicago’s Old Elm, St. George’s Hill, the Eden course at St. Andrews, and played a major part in the birth of Pine Valley—surely the greatest year in the history of golf course design. The 36-hole Puerta de Hierro is Spain’s poshest golf club, and although the course has suffered over the years, the club is now working with renowned Colt expert Frank Pont to restore its essence.
Just south of Valencia is the famous links of El Saler, tucked on a sandy spit of land between the Mediterranean and the Albufera lagoon, the masterpiece of, arguably, continental Europe’s only great golf architect. Javier Arana built just 10 courses during his 25-year career, but his hit rate was remarkable, including the wonderful Neguri course in the Basque region of northern Spain. He first saw the sand dunes that would become El Saler in 1954, but it was a decade later, when the government-owned Parador hotel company decided to build on the site, that he got to transform it into golf. Though it has slipped recently, for many years El Saler was regarded as one of the best courses in Europe. Trees have grown around the more inland holes, removing the full linksy impact, but from time to time a rumor goes around that someone is going to take El Saler in hand. It should not be missed.
Sylt, on Germany’s North Frisian Islands very close to Denmark, is an affluent holiday island where many of Hamburg’s wealthy keep a home. The long west coast of the island is essentially all sand where there are three golf courses. It could have been a great golf destination, but the sand dunes are fiercely protected—except for one spot on the south end of the island, previously home to a military airbase. When the base closed, a clever developer saw an opportunity and constructed a quite remarkable golf resort. Local landscape architect Rolf-Stephan Hansen built the golf course, called Budersand, and it could very easily be in Scotland. It lacks the quirk of old school Scottish links, but it’s good enough to be ranked second in Germany by the respected website top100golfcourses.com.
Heading south and west along the coast of the North Sea is enough to make any golf enthusiast weep: Much of the coastline is flanked by a deep line of perfect sand dunes, now off-limits to golf development because of environmental legislation. But all is not lost. In the Netherlands, the dunes have been quite substantially used for golf. The courses at Noordwijk and Kennemer—the latter another Harry Colt masterpiece—are both excellent, but it’s the westernmost of the three Dutch links that wins the prize.
Koninklijke Haagsche (Royal Hague) was built a few months before the outbreak of World War II by Colt’s associate Hugh Alison, but didn’t open until after the war, in 1947. Though the dunes have been infested with scrubby trees over the years, the club has invested hugely in removing them. The course is epic and the huge par-four 6th is a prime example: massively long at almost 470 yards, the entire hole, from tee to green, seems to shed balls off the side. The course has only one fairway bunker but doesn’t need any more, the terrain providing all the challenge any golfer could ever need.
There is good inland golf in the Netherlands, too. Not far from Utrecht is De Pan, as beautiful a heathland course as you could hope to find in Surrey or Berkshire. Colt made wonderful use of the sandy, heathery ground; the short par-four 10th hole will live longest in the memory, something unique in the way Colt used small mounds on either side of the hole to create almost an island fairway effect. Further east, near Ermelo, sits a new course, Links Valley, a nine-hole reversible design by Frank Pont that opened this year. Pont hopes to build more reversible nines in urban locations, a clever way of getting a lot of golf on small plots of land. (His second such project, at Patting in Riedering, Germany, will open next year.)
In the seaside town of Knokke-Heist in Belgium is Royal Zoute, long recognized as one of the continent’s elite clubs. The Harry Colt course was once a links but has been divorced from the coast by lots of housing and tree growth, although it still has the sandy soil and undulating turf that mark it out for what it is.
Well south and east, in the Ardennes mountains, is Belgium’s second most interesting course, Royal Golf des Fagnes (often known as Royal Spa), close to the racetrack of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Belgian Grand Prix is held. Designed by Tom Simpson in the late 1920s, Spa is an interesting beast. The site has great contour and Simpson’s layout is as wonderful as might be expected from this most artistic of architects. But the soil is not ideal and the course is choked by trees. The beautiful par-three 6th, built over a quarry by Simpson but now overgrown by trees with the quarry replaced by an anonymous pond, is symptomatic of this, but the club is short of cash and has not been able to start a restoration project. The course deserves it.
Finally France, venue for this year’s Ryder Cup. On the northwest coast near Calais is Le Touquet, where the newer course, La Mer (The Sea), built by Colt and Alison in the late 1920s, is in the middle of a multi-year restoration project. Trees and vegetation have been removed to reveal a classic links. There is a long way to go, but the signs are positive.
An hour south of Paris is Fontainebleau, home of a royal palace that later became the Emperor Napoleon’s favorite residence. In the old royal forest is a golf course, built by Tom Simpson, which vies with Royal Spa for the title of “Best Opportunity in Europe.” Sandy and heathy, Fontainebleau is already wonderful; with a sensitive touch sorting out grassing lines and such, it could be hugely better. It’s true that the forest is both problem and opportunity: There are trees here too close to the line of play, but it would take a philistine indeed to recommend the removal of a 500-year-old oak. Not, thankfully, my problem.
On the north side of Paris, again in the middle of a huge forest, is the best golf course in the whole of Europe. Golf de Morfontaine, another Simpson work, is a legendary place, the club so posh that simply arranging to play the course is such a challenge that visitors are typically overcome with emotion before hitting a shot. Simpson’s work here is near perfect: greens with contour, especially on the nine-hole Valliere course, the likes of which you have never seen before. And it’s a forest—that helps keep it private—but you’ll almost never find a tree in your line of shot. If Morfontaine could be picked up and plonked down in Surrey, it would be regarded as one of the best courses in golf-rich England—except the French members would never stop complaining about the English food!